Monday, March 29, 2021

#StayAtHome: "Outlaws of the Marsh, Vol. 3"


We're now past page 1,603 in this Chinese epic martial novel. In Vol. 3 of Outlaws of the Marsh, the scope of the action broadens significantly, from the individual and small scale melee clashes of Volumes 1 and 2, to predominantly large scale battles involving fortified villages, towns, and cities. Similarly, the targets of the outlaws' covert operations also shift toward larger targets, including the Eastern Capital of Kaifeng.

It took me slightly longer to read this volume (close to 40 days), as I had a few other books I was reading at the same time. The story continues to engage and entertain however.

A few things stand out in this volume:

  • Chivalrous values continue to trump realpolitik: when extremely competent enemy commanders (officials of the Chinese state) surrender, their respectful treatment by Song Jiang, the supreme chieftain of the outlaws, often compels them to join the outlaws' cause. Virtue wins out.
  • Song Jiang has a propensity to offer the supreme role to conquered commanders who join the outlaws. He does this repeatedly. Eventually, his veteran chieftains get really irritated by this, and threaten to quit if Song Jiang doesn't cease and desist from trying to yield the supreme role to others. [Incidentally, if I were to run my own martial arts campaign based on Outlaws, which I am tempted to do, I might begin it with an "Empty Fortress" scenario, in which the outlaw chieftains all quit, and everyone leaves in frustration with Song Jiang. It is up to the PCs to rebuild the grand rebel alliance, or do something new and different.]
  • The outlaws' opposition are an interesting bunch and include a commander who is a fire specialist, another who is a water specialist, another who is a master of the devastating (and perhaps legendary and impractical) chained cavalry tactic, as well as a master of the twin iron rod combat technique, and yet another who is an expert at throwing stones (!). [I actually checked my copy of Righteous Blood, Ruthless Blades to see if that RPG has a stone throwing martial arts technique, but it doesn't. We'll probably be eventually creating one.]
  • The number of female combatants increases from two to three, as Sun Erniang, the Witch, joins Hu Sanniang, Ten Feet of Steel, and Mistress Gu, the Tigress. There is at least one battle in which they team up as a unit, and Mistress Gu also takes part in covert action inside a city under siege by the outlaws.
  • Chapter 71 comes very late in the volume (and around p. 1500 in the novel), but feels very much like a formalization of everything that has happened previously. After a major victory, Song Jiang convenes his chieftains for a supernatural ritual in their fortress on Mt. Liang, formalizing membership and governance among the outlaw chieftains, and assigning military and other duties to the heroes. The outlaws essentially instantiate a rebel government in a liberated zone. The narration lists the 36 stars of the Heavenly Spirts and 72 stars of the Earthly Fiends, which roughly sorts the heroes by status. During the ritual, the actual "list" falls from heaven inscribed on a stone, so the heroes and their government are divinely ordained to restore dignity, order, and justice to the imperial government. 
We'll end with a quote from Chapter 72, when Song Jiang and close associates go undercover to see the lantern festival in the Eastern Capital (Kaifeng). They visit the home of one of the Emperor's favorite concubines. She serves our heroes tea, and the narrative describes the tea leaves as: 

"finer than bird's tongues, [and] the brew was as fragrant as dragon's saliva."

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